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Walt Whitman to Bernard O'Dowd, 15 March 1891


Well how are you getting along there 10,000 miles f'm here—& "how's all"? (as the black people say down south)—Did you get the package of four big books2 I sent Dec. 27 last by express to you? & my two letters3 since—& the March Lippincott's4 magazine?—Am now sick here & have been several weeks, & nothing promising ahead—but sit up & read & write—have just had a little stew'd rice & mutton for my supper—am busy with 2d annex5 to L of G. & Nov: Boughs6—have just finish'd & sent off the proofs of the poetic bits (16 or 17 pages altogether) & sent the printers part of the "copy" of the rest—it will all be very brief & scrappy—(you have seen a great part of it)—Did you get Ingersoll's7 address in little book form8 I sent? intend to post you future pieces yet—if you have a chance, look for an essay on Australia in the Century magazine Feb. '91—page 607 seems to have some meat in it9—Thoughtful folks here are paying much attention to you south there & Canada north—I find the advice apparent drift is not to be in too g't a hurry to cut loose f'm G't Britain—but you both are the best judges & deciders of all that—I am still up & interesting myself but inertia & disablement hold me powerless four fifths of the time—Again best respects & love to you & again to Eve10 & Mr & Mrs Fryer11 & Fred Woods12 & Jim Hartigan13 & Ada & Ted & Louie & the baby14 & Tom Touchstone,15 & may be other friends not named—mates of mine unspecified there whom you are authorized to give them if any my good remembrance heart word—Without any special reason I yet have felt to write you all once more—but now I shall probably give you a rest awhile.16

Walt Whitman  slv_tb.00040.jpg  slv_tb.00041.jpg  slv_tb.00042.jpg

Bernard O'Dowd (1866–1953), a self-styled "poor clerk in an obscure library" in Melbourne, Australia, wrote for the first time to Walt Whitman on March 12, 1890, although there is extant an unsent draft letter written on August 6, 1889. From his confessions in various letters it is clear that O'Dowd, the son of an Irish policeman, had a lonely and loveless childhood, that he was reared a Roman Catholic only to become a freethinker, that he became a teacher at an early age but then drifted (not unlike Walt Whitman) from job to job, and that despite his marriage the year before in his own eyes he was "a failure" and "an enigma to myself." He saw Walt Whitman as an heroic father figure: "Had Carlyle added another chapter to his 'Hero Worship' the 'Hero as Nurse' with Walt Whitman as subject would have worthily capped his dome" (Charles E. Feinberg Collection; A. L. McLeod, ed., Walt Whitman in Australia and New Zealand: A Record of his Reception [Sydney: Wentworth, 1964], 23). For discussions of O'Dowd, see A. L. McLeod's article in Walt Whitman Review 7 (June 1961), 23–35, and his Walt Whitman in Australia and New Zealand (1964).


  • 1. This letter is addressed: Bernard O'Dowd | Supreme Court Library | Melbourne | Victoria | via San Francisco | or otherwise. It is postmarked: Camden N.J. | MAR 16 | 8 PM | 91; Philadelphia, PA. | MAR 16 | 11PM | F.D.; San Francisco [illegible] | MAR 22 | 1891 | F.D.; Melbourne | [illegible]L | AP 29 | 91. [back]
  • 2. Whitman often referred to Complete Poems & Prose (1888) as his "big book." The volume was published by the poet himself in an arrangement with publisher David McKay, who allowed Whitman to use the plates for both Leaves of Grass and Specimen Days—in December 1888. With the help of Horace Traubel, Whitman made the presswork and binding decisions, and Frederick Oldach bound the volume, which included a profile photo of the poet on the title page. For more information on the book, see Ed Folsom, Whitman Making Books/Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary (University of Iowa: Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, 2005). [back]
  • 3. See Whitman's letter to O'Dowd of December 26, 1890. [back]
  • 4. In March 1891, Lippincott's Magazine published "Old Age Echoes," a cycle of four poems including "Sounds of the Winter," "The Unexpress'd," "Sail Out for Good, Eidólon Yacht," and "After the Argument," accompanied by an extensive autobiographical note called "Some Personal and Old-Age Memoranda." Also appearing in that issue was a piece on Whitman entitled, "Walt Whitman: Poet and Philosopher and Man" by Horace Traubel. [back]
  • 5. Thirty-one poems from Whitman's book Good-Bye My Fancy (1891) were later printed as "Good-Bye my Fancy 2d Annex" to Leaves of Grass (1891–1892), the last edition of Leaves of Grass published before Whitman's death in March 1892. For more information see Donald Barlow Stauffer, "'Good-Bye my Fancy' (Second Annex) (1891)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 6. Whitman's November Boughs was published in October 1888 by Philadelphia publisher David McKay. For more information on the book, see James E. Barcus Jr., "November Boughs [1888]," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
  • 7. Robert "Bob" Green Ingersoll (1833–1899) was a Civil War veteran and an orator of the post-Civil War era, known for his support of agnosticism. Ingersoll was a friend of Whitman, who considered Ingersoll the greatest orator of his time. Whitman said to Horace Traubel, "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass. He lives, embodies, the individuality I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen—American-flavored—pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light" (Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, Wednesday, March 25, 1891). The feeling was mutual. Upon Whitman's death in 1892, Ingersoll delivered the eulogy at the poet's funeral. The eulogy was published to great acclaim and is considered a classic panegyric (see Phyllis Theroux, The Book of Eulogies [New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997], 30). [back]
  • 8. On October 21, 1890 at Horticultural Hall in Philadelphia, Robert Ingersoll delivered a lecture in honor of Walt Whitman titled Liberty in Literature. Testimonial to Walt Whitman. Whitman recorded in his Commonplace Book that the lecture was "a noble, (very eulogistic to WW & L of G) eloquent speech, well responded to by the audience" and the speech itself was published in New York by the Truth Seeker Company in 1890 (Whitman's Commonplace Book [Charles E. Feinberg Collection of the Papers of Walt Whitman, 1839–1919, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.]). Following the lecture event, Horace Traubel went to Canada with Bucke. [back]
  • 9. "The Anglo-Saxon in the Southern Hemisphere. The Workingmen in Australia," Century, 41 (1891), 607–613. [back]
  • 10. Evangeline (Eva) Mina Fryer O'Dowd was the wife of Bernard O'Dowd. [back]
  • 11. Mr. and Mrs. Fryer were Bernard O'Dowd's in-laws. John Robbins Fryer (1826–1912) was a carpenter and conductor of the Melbourne Secular Lyceum. Jane Trump Fryer (1832–1917) was often considered a "political and religious radical," who was also a teacher in the Lyceum. For more on the Fryers, see Frank Bongiorno, "Fryer, Jane (1832–1917)," Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplemental Volume, Online Version, 2006. [back]
  • 12. Fred Woods was a member of the Australeum discussion club and later wrote Heavenly Thoughts (1932), a volume of poetry. See A. L. McLeod, "Walt Whitman in Australia," Walt Whitman Review 7 (June 1961), 28n. [back]
  • 13. James Hartigan was a plasterer and member of the Australeum discussion club. [back]
  • 14. Little is known about these individuals (Ada, Ted, Louie, and the baby) save that they are likely relatives of Bernard O'Dowd's wife, Eva Fryer O'Dowd. They may include her sibling (or siblings) and their spouses and children. [back]
  • 15. Thomas Bury, penname "Tom Touchstone," was a columnist for the Ballarat Courier (Victoria). See A. L. McLeod, "Walt Whitman in Australia," Walt Whitman Review 7 (June 1961), 28n. [back]
  • 16. O'Dowd finally responded to Whitman on August 31, 1891 and begins by explaining his rationale for the delay: "I have not wanted to bother you during your severe illness, hence my silence." [back]
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